How do you build a piece of furniture?
If you are like me, you go to IKEA. You pick out the piece of furniture that will meet your purposes and is generally aesthetically pleasing. You purchase the kit that includes all of the wood, hardware, and instructions in one big box. You take the big box home, unpack it, and then you look at the instructions. The instructions more or less explain all of the details of how to put together the piece step by step with visual representations. You follow each step explicitly and in the end you have put together a chest of drawers or table or cabinet or whatever piece of furniture you needed. Voila!
I know you are thinking, “so what?” Some folks like IKEA and some folks like designing their own furniture. However, there is much more to these two tasks than building furniture. These two tasks demonstrate a core idea about the kinds of work that people do in their lives.
The first kind of task, we’ll call rules-based or algorithmic tasks and are defined by a clear set of steps. This is the IKEA furniture task. In rules-based tasks, most of the thinking has been done for us. We have an algorithm or a clear set of steps spelled out for us into how to complete the task. First you do this, then this, and so on until the task is complete and you get the result you wanted.
The second kind of task, we’ll call creative tasks and are defined by an unclear course to completion of the task and require a fund of knowledge, a set of schema or conceptual understandings, pattern recognition, and analysis of the problem solving process with the ability to change course. In other words, creative tasks require what Frank Levi and Richard Murnane have dubbed expert thinking skills. In these kinds of tasks there are no rules to follow.
The interesting thing is that we need both kinds of tasks in our lives and we need the ability to complete both kinds of activities. While we don’t all need some IKEA furniture, we all do need some tasks where the thinking has been done for us. It makes life easier. However, if we are going to be competitive in our flattening world, we also need to be able to tackle the second kind of task. It may not be to build a piece of furniture, but it will be to solve a problem that doesn’t have a single clear path to a solution, a problem that can be solved effectively in multiple ways.
We need both kinds of tasks because our world is changing, in fact in many ways it has. A hundred years ago, the United States was involved in a different dramatic change. We were shifting from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. With that shift in work, the kinds of tasks that people had to do at work shifted as well. Algorithms were an innovation that made work easier. Factories could run on sets of rules-based tasks. You pull the lever. You turn the nob. But it wasn’t just in the factories. Lots of white collar office work in the early twentieth century was defined by rules-based tasks. The rules might be a bit more complex than in the factory, and there might be more tasks with more rules. However, by far the majority of workers completed their work by following a set of predetermined steps.
However, we are still on the wave of another dramatic change that has been taking place over the last half century. We are shifting again. This time it is from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy. The shift is characterized by work defined more and more by how people filter vast amounts of information to bare on complex problems with no ready made solutions. In the higher paid jobs in our economy, there is still the presence of rules-based tasks, but workers are also required to complete a greater number of create tasks.
If we are to prepare our children today for rich and varied options for their future, then they need to have the social and cognitive skills to complete both kinds of tasks. However, because of the nature of the work, if students are able to complete a create task effectively, then they will be far more prepared to complete rules-based tasks because create tasks require a far greater level of understanding. Think back to the furniture making. I don’t have to know that much about furniture design and construction if I am to follow the rules to make an IKEA table. However, if I am left to my own devises to design a table, I better have a concept of how a table can be built. Then with that knowledge, building a table from IKEA isn’t that difficult to a furniture builder. Thus to give students access to create tasks builds their understanding and gives them greater access to completing rules-based tasks. All of this is to suggest that starting in preschool, children should be engaging in create tasks.
So you might be thinking what does this mean. I’ll illustrate with an example from elementary mathematics. How were you taught to evaluate the following addition expression?
If you were like me, you were taught to work right to left and follow these rules:
1. Add the digits in the right hand column. That is 8+7=15.
2. Then with the 15, you take the 5 and place it under that first column of numbers on the right.
3. Then you still have a 1 from the 15 and you take that and for some reason you put the one not below but above the numbers in the next column of digits to the right. So you put a 1 above the 5 and 3.
4. Then you add all of the numbers in the left hand column. 1+5+3= 9
5. You place the 9 at the bottom of that left hand column.
6. Finally you have your answer of 95 because you have placed a 9 next to the 5.
Clearly a rules-based task. It is an effective algorithm for solving two-digit addition. It works. However, it masks what is really happening in the addition expression, and worse it hinders the development of understanding.
In contrast, what if when you were shown a problem like this for the first time in second grade you start not with a fixed set of steps, but a knowledge of what addition is and an understanding of place value. In this case, you work to find a solution that makes sense to you and works. For example, you might not work left to right but instead, you might think about breaking the numbers up into component parts. With your understanding of addition you know that you could add the component parts and you would could get the solution you are looking for quite easily. For example, you know that 58 is equal to 50 and 8. Likewise you know that 37 is equal to 30 and 7. Because of the commutative property you know that you can add 8 and 7 to get 15 and you can add 30 and 50 to get 80. Then you can add 80 and 15 to get 95. This amounts to a different algorithm for solving the addition problem, but it is an algorithm that is created by a student and promotes understanding of numbers sense and how addition works.
Schooling has traditionally taught kids how to complete rules-based tasks and hoped that understanding would follow for the few that needed it and were destined for a college degree. That isn’t enough today. All children need to develop understanding, if they are to compete in our knowledge economy. We need to give students opportunities to work through create tasks as a regular part of their school experience.